Press Box

Moyers Responds to Slate

Jack Shafer reported very old news as new and distorted the record beyond recognition.

Bill Moyers, managing editor of Bill Moyers Journal on PBS, sent the following e-mail to the editor after Jack Shafer’s first piece on the topic was published but before the second was posted. Shafer replies  after the Moyers letter. 

Bill Moyers

In his intemperate attack on my “intolerable smugness,” “thuggery,” and “White House homo hunts” published on Feb. 20, Jack Shafer breathlessly reported very old news as new, and in a wholly irresponsible way that distorted the record beyond recognition. He bothered neither to check the secondhand sources on which he wholly relied nor to ask me for comment on them.

Had he done so, he would have found a much more complex—and interesting—story than the one he found so easy to judge. Had Shafer even tried to get in touch with me, for instance, I might have pointed him to a Newsweek column I wrote about the Goldwater incident way back in 1975, as well as to various historical accounts that have since appeared and with which I’ve been happy to cooperate. But since he didn’t bother, I have no choice but to try once again to clarify the record. Here it is, as I best remember it:

Recall, first of all, what a bizarre situation we in the Johnson White House had on our hands back in 1964. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was sending us a constant stream of unsupported allegations from “anonymous informants” about people in the administration (and others) rumored to be gay. 

In those days, this was no small matter. The mere accusation was sufficient to end a career. Several years earlier, as I worked one afternoon at the Senate Office Building, I heard the crack of a gunshot one floor above as a United States senator committed suicide over his son’s outing. I have never forgotten that sound.

We all had gay friends and colleagues at the time, but we operated under an unspoken, mutual agreement to keep it to ourselves. Then, in the fall of 1964, in the middle of the Johnson-Goldwater contest, the president and those of us around him were stunned and saddened to learn of the arrest of LBJ’s longtime, faithful, and exhausted chief of staff, Walter Jenkins, on charges of having sex in a public men’s room. We couldn’t believe it. He was a devoted husband, father of seven children, and a practicing Catholic. I remember Lady Bird Johnson crying as she talked about what had befallen her old friend. That same night, the president accepted Walter’s resignation and named me temporarily as his chief of staff, a portfolio that included liaison with the FBI.

Sen. Goldwater and his allies in the press seized on Walter’s arrest as a sign of Washington’s “moral degeneration.” In that climate of suspicion and accusation, Hoover came to the Oval Office personally to tell the president that Jenkins might have been set up by Goldwater operatives. LBJ instructed him to see if he could find out which of Goldwater’s team might have been responsible. Afterward, Johnson instructed me to inform our FBI liaison that he wanted a report as soon as possible. 

As I wrote in Newsweek way back in 1975, the FBI found no evidence to corroborate Hoover’s tip. Despite the fact that a conveniently placed leak from us could have put Goldwater and the Republicans on the defensive, there were no leaks—to the press or to anyone outside the very small circle entrusted by the president to handle these matters. 

More “tips” from the FBI followed. We in the White House were walking a very delicate line. Here was the director of the FBI, who at the time was lionized by the public, the press, and both political parties, informing the president of potentially explosive allegations from “anonymous informants” concerning members of his staff and administration. If we ignored them, we were leaving ourselves open to blackmail or possibly reprisals from Hoover himself, or both. We certainly could not afford another incident like the one with Walter. And so, yes, we did ask the FBI to follow up on a handful of these reports.

As the White House chief of staff at the time, it was my job to make sure the president’s requests were expedited, but it was also my responsibility—with the White House legal counsel—to make sure no individual was wronged in the process. We had to balance privacy against security, and we did. No harm came to a single person from any of these allegations. Nobody lost a job, and not a single name was leaked to the press. Did we handle the situation perfectly? I’ll let history be the judge of that one, but our actions certainly do not conform to the nasty caricature with its attendant insinuations that Shafer seeks to paint.

As for the rest of his tirade, well, sure, I plead guilty to planting questions with cooperative reporters when I was White House press secretary, giving them a hint that the president had something on his mind that they might not be thinking of.  I’ve never denied this as it was understood by all to be part of the job long before I held it. We never staged a scripted news conference, however. Maybe we should have. I can still recall the laugh I got at the National Press Club in 1965 when I joked, “Our credibility has become so bad we can’t even believe our own leaks.”

When Shafer’s finished with this scoop, perhaps he will wish to break the one about gambling going on in the back room of “Rick’s American Cafe.”

Jack Shafer replies:Allow me to refer readers back to the Washington Post article by Joe Stephens about gay-hunting in the Johnson White House, an article that BillMoyers does not mention in his letter.

Did Moyers request FBI investigations of members of the administration who were thought to have homosexual tendencies, or did he not? When Stephens asked Moyers point-blank about his role, Moyers sent an e-mail confessing to an unclear memory of those years. Moyers’ impression, as Stephens puts it, was “that he may have been simply looking for details of allegations first brought to the president by Hoover.”

Stephens’ article, however, unambiguously cites an FBI memo stating that Moyers requested FBI investigations of two suspected administration homosexuals. Until Moyers says or proves otherwise, I’ll assume that he did request the investigations. All the rest of his letter is a nondenial denial.

I’m glad that Moyers’ letter brings up Sen. Barry Goldwater, R-Ariz., a politician more sinned against than sinning, in my opinion. That Johnson kept a dossier on Goldwater is reported in Michael Beschloss’ book Reaching for Glory: Lyndon Johnson’s Secret White House Tapes, 1964-1965. After the Jenkins arrest, Johnson worried that Hoover might get his hands on the contents of a safe in Jenkins’ office that contained “potentially embarrassing FBI and other information on the private lives of LBJ, … administration appointees, Goldwater, [vice-presidential nominee William E.] Miller, and other political friends and enemies. …”

As part of the national security investigation of Jenkins, two FBI agents called on Goldwater at 6:30 in the morning at his Chicago hotel “to ask about his own relationship with Jenkins’ and Jenkins’s ‘personal habit,’ ” Beschloss writes. Goldwater, who commanded Jenkins in the Air Force Reserve, was furious. Beschloss continues, “Goldwater complained that in the Jenkins investigation, Johnson was abusing the FBI ‘for political purposes.’ “

Moyers can’t be serious about dismissing my piece as “very old news.” It’s very new news when the Post reports documentary evidence that Moyers had the FBI investigate the sexual orientation of administration figures. The Post piece places Moyers and his career in a new context worthy of re-examination.

Which brings us to the Newsweek column (“LBJ and the FBI,” March 10, 1975), which must be read to be believed. It’s a classic case of damage control, coming as it did days after a congressional hearing in which a Justice Department official testified that Moyers, acting at LBJ’s behest, had asked the FBI to investigate Goldwater campaign aides. (See the paid archives of the New York Timesfor the contemporaneous news story.)

The Newsweek column is as evasive and as self-serving as this letter from Moyers.

[Addendum: Shafer probes Moyers’ memory.]


Jack Shafer reads e-mail at (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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